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Sunday Conversation: Schools, transportation leader Cindy Stuart talks school bus cuts

Hillsborough School Board Chairwoman Cindy Stuart says the school district will work with parents and other agencies to find transportation alternatives once the district eliminates its courtesy busing service for children living within two miles of school. 

Hillsborough School Board Chairwoman Cindy Stuart says the school district will work with parents and other agencies to find transportation alternatives once the district eliminates its courtesy busing service for children living within two miles of school.
Published Dec. 16, 2016

Cindy Stuart chairs the Hillsborough County School Board and is a member of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the local transportation policy board. The two roles give her a unique perspective on cuts the school district is making in "courtesy busing," a service the school district has provided for more than 12,000 students living within two miles of their schools.

To save money, the district will end courtesy busing for as many as 7,500 middle and high school students, starting in August. Elementary school changes will come a year later. Stuart discussed this move with Tampa Bay Times reporter Marlene Sokol.

Q. The state requires school districts to bus students beyond two miles of the schools. After that, there is no dedicated funding. At what point should it become a parent's responsibility to get their kids to school safely?

A. I don't want to frame it as getting kids to school safely. For a large number of students, we are doing a lot more than what the state says that we have to do.

How did we get to that point?

If I feel, as a parent, that it's unsafe walking or biking to get my kid to school, I call the district. I make a complaint, maybe me and three or four other parents. Someone comes out and says it is probably not in the best interest because on that road today they are doing water line construction. Then that situation ended, but we never took away that transportation.

Q. Which is amazing.

A. So what if my mom would have just driven me, and I never got a bus? It may still be an unsafe route, or a route that is challenging. But the first response my mother got was, "You don't get busing, you're within the two mile zone, it's a parental responsibility."

It's about equity. I have hundreds of kids at Adams (Middle), at Mort (Elementary). They get themselves to school however that looks, whether that's a walking school bus, whether a parent drives them, or they ride a bike.

Could we bus every student to school? If it was something we could afford, if we had enough buses, if we had enough drivers, if traffic was clear enough, would we do it? Absolutely. Could we get them there on time? That benefits us. It reduces tardies. It gets fewer vehicles on the campus. So if we wanted to be equitable and offer busing to every single kid within the district, all 212,000, it would be the safest way to get everyone there. But we can't do that.

Q. It's like transportation manager Jim Beekman said, we can bus everybody and then we can't hire teachers.

A. This has been going on a very long time. The other thing is, you have to be very careful. You have to say, 'This is the criteria,' and you can't stray from that. Because the minute you do, you have to do it for everyone.

Q. Why is it that for 20 years they kept giving kids courtesy busing but there was never a process of reversing it?

A. I don't know why. It hasn't been a huge issue for us financially until recently.

Q. You mean you didn't realize until recently how much money you were wasting.

A. Right. But we wanted to give as much time as possible to parents and families to make other plans. If you told me tomorrow that my son has to find his own way to high school for next year, I'm already thinking, 'Who can I carpool with?' How can I rearrange my schedule to get him there at 7:15 in the morning?' Maybe we need to think about a different high school, and the choice period is open. How are we going to make this work?

Its reminds me of the choice system. We have very, very detailed guidelines on choice. We have an application period, and then maybe at the end there's a hardship situation. You have to have a pretty good reason to get a hardship into a school, like a medical condition or specific classes that you're looking to take. We need to get to that with transportation. Because that, then, is equitable. If I told you no and Johnny yes, there's a reason, not because you yelled louder than Johnny.

Q. What about a case like FishHawk Ranch where you have 1,000 kids and parents say if you take the buses away, there will be nightmarish gridlock and unsafe streets? Is this now their problem?

A. I don't think we're passing it off. We're there to help them solve the problem to the best of our ability. There are a lot of resources we can offer through MPO. Do we need to get other governmental agencies involved to put up lights? Do we need to talk about traffic calming, about biking and pedestrian safety, HOV lanes and carpooling? Those are conversations we intend to have with principals in early February, and then give principals those tools to push out to their communities.

Q. Tell me about your school transportation work group.

A. It's huge. It's a lot of my folks, school district transportation, choice and magnet, school charter, safety, and planning. Then we get into the providers — More Health, St. Joseph's Hospital, CUTR (the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida), Vision Zero. Then people from the city, the county, Florida Department of Transportation, crossing guards. They are working with the district to help us mitigate the issues that will come out of changing courtesy busing.

Q. What changes might result from the group's work?

A. At the present time they have chosen four schools to do road safety audits. They're going to start with a survey. How your kid gets to school, what time, after-school care. And then they will look at lighting, timing of lights, crossing guards.

Q. Do they have the authority to go to local government and call for improvements?

A. It would come from my committee through the MPO's recommendations.

Keep in mind, also, we're adding kids to courtesy busing that our study found were in areas that were not safe. Leto High had 46 that were courtesy bused. It's going to be 102 now. Jefferson had none, we added 59.

Q. Is it possible to reroute public buses so students can take them to school.

A. Legislatively, they're not allowed to do that for us. But I could take a bus from Freedom High School to the nearest HART bus near Van Buren (Middle) and the kids could get a Hartline and go home the rest of the way.

I have said since day one that if you want to increase your ridership on any public transportation, these are the kids you should be talking to. The question is who pays for it and how much does it cost?

We have kids who do it. You know who does it really well? West University and Seminole Heights, the charter credit recovery school. All of their kids are given a bus pass, so transportation for them is not an issue for getting to class.

Sunday conversations are edited for style and length. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com.